Prices fuel complaints

A little-known gas pump malady can overcharge customers, though sometimes it’s the customers who cause it

Bob Green, a weights and measures inspector, is getting more calls as gas prices climb.

Bob Green, a weights and measures inspector, is getting more calls as gas prices climb.

Photo By Nick Higman

Michele Ravera, a part-time resident of Gerlach, stopped in to that town’s beloved Bruno’s Country Club a couple of weeks ago to gas up her car. Ravera, a News & Review sales aide, pulled down the hose and noticed that the pump jumped to five cents before she’d actually pumped any gas.

“I know for sure I wasn’t squeezing the handle or anything,” she said later. “If I had actually pumped five cents worth of gas, it would have spilled on me. The nozzle was not yet in the car tank hole.”

She wondered if she should report it to someone. Learning that the state weights and measures agency is based in Sparks, she called it.

“A man named Bob followed up with me after visiting the pump. He said that the pump checked out OK, and what I experienced was ‘computer jump,’ which in my case most likely happened because I used the sunny side pump on a hot day.”

What she experienced is the subject of many complaints around the nation in these days of rising gas prices, and consumers are finding their way to obscure agencies they didn’t previously know existed.

“We get more complaints when the gas prices rise the way they have,” Nebraska weights and measures inspector Don Onwiler told a reporter recently.

“People are paying closer attention at the pump,” said Mike Harper, a county inspector in Pennsylvania.

Ravera dealt with Bob Green, an inspector who works out of the state weights and measures headquarters on Frazer Avenue in Sparks. The agency is an arm of the Nevada Agriculture Department.

Green traveled to Gerlach, inspected the pump’s workings and found them sound. He was unable to replicate what happened to Ravera. He didn’t doubt that it had happened, though—it’s a familiar problem, and it’s not always caused by heat. Sometimes customers make it happen.

“They start banging it, holding the hose up, and they think they’re going to get this windfall of gasoline, which is far from the truth,” Green said. “They’ll be successful to get this really minute amount of gas.”

The problem is that this trace of gas sets off something in the nozzle that causes the pump to register a few cents when the next customer comes in.

Green has been doing his job for 25 years, and when he started, computer jump was not much of a problem. The price of gas was then low enough that the jump barely registered. But at $4 a gallon, it definitely does—and at a time when the patience of customers on the subject of gas prices is already short.

In Ravera’s case, Green says, computer jump was probably caused by the heat in the desert town.

“She was on the sun side and so, you know, it’s pretty warm out there during that time that she purchased the gas, so when she clicked it on, it was due to expansion and evaporation.”

When Green inspected the pump, the weather was cooler, making it difficult to repeat her experience.

Fair measures of gold and coffee
Green started out with a food industry degree from Cal Poly. Working in the manufacturing end of food service, he became familiar with a lot of the kind of equipment he now inspects. His agency regulates a wide range of devices that measure. Supermarket produce scales are probably the most familiar, but it doesn’t stop there. Some of them are fairly exotic, such as devices that measure precious metals. And how does a customer know that package of fresh ground coffee is actually half a pound?

“We go all the way from a jeweler’s scale, where we deal in milligrams, all the way up to truck scales,” Green said. “We also do scanner checks in supermarkets, package inspections.”

The state has a program in which private citizens, known as public weighmasters, are licensed by the state to perform the function of certifying weights and measures in business, such as commodities like hay bales. This means no state inspector has to be involved. However, even though they are licensed by the state to do that work, the state weights and measures agency still audits their activities.

Complaints to public agencies can, on occasion, generate heat, and this is certainly true of gas prices. Green says while he has occasionally been berated, it has never gotten physical, though the thought is always there.

“Sometimes some people lashed out. … When you’re in it for 25 years, you kind of know how to handle, conduct yourself professionally, you know. … It’s always on your mind because you go into a variety of businesses and locations and—thank goodness I never have walked in on a robbery in progress—it’s kind of on the back of your mind.”

Unlike some state regulators, such as Nevada utility regulators, weights and measures folks do not work with the trappings of law enforcement, such as uniforms and cars that look like police cars. Green thinks that’s good, because it doesn’t set up an adversarial situation. (The agency’s office is located at the back side of the state mental hospital, but no conclusion should be drawn from that.)

Certainly Michele Ravera was pleased with his work. She is relieved that she doesn’t have to blame Bruno Selmi, who is a community institution in Gerlach.

“At least now I know, if I have an option to pick between the shady pump and the sunny one—shady!” she said. “Bruno’s Shell station was not ripping me off. It was the heat’s fault.”